Lysistrata and The Bacchae

Aristophanes and Euripides
Théâtre Libre in association with Giant Olive Theatre Company
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
(2009)

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For centuries, the Greek classics have been mined by playwrights for their plots and situations, their extraordinary characters and their distantly archaic though strangely topical narratives. Théâtre Libre in association with Giant Olive Theatre Company have elected to take two of these Greek plays, a comedy by Aristophanes and a tragedy by Euripides, and present them for the twenty-first century.

Produced as two independent productions with decidedly different stylistic approaches, Lysistrata & The Bacchae provide an interesting flavour of the ribald humour and hubristic horror of Greek drama. The first play, Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, takes its misogynistic tale of Athenian women staging a sex-strike in order to force their menfolk into peace talks after years of warfare, translating it into a street battle between break-dancing ladettes and their hoodie husbands.

Influenced by Capoeira and underscored by the steady throb of DJ Halo’s vinyl scratching, Lysistrata is transformed into a physical confrontation between youthful libido and feminine wile. The absurdity of Aristophanes’ plot to his Athenian audience, who would never have believed their women capable of such a subtle plan, appears in stark contrast to that presented by the young London girls who strut their modernized stuff like Catherine Tate’s Lauren Cooper on “am I bovvered?” speed.

Moments of comedy do ensue, especially when the Gossard Wonderbra’d Maria Gray as Myrrhine excites her husband Cinesias (played wonderfully by Durassie Kiangangu) into priapic panic. Cleavages and groins grind in ecstatic glee, Cinesias left to writhe in agony as his wife withholds her charms just long enough to force her husband, and all the other males, into a peaceful conclusion to the years of battle.

Physical yes, though occasionally this physicality gets in the way of the narrative, making the whole difficult to follow. Nevertheless, a brave attempt to breathe knew life into the classic which ultimately succeeds because of the energy of the young cast rather than any conceptual cohesion.

After an interval, an entirely different experience, with an almost text-book presentation of The Bacchae. Almost text-book, because the play is peopled by the god-protagonist Dionysus (Amy Avery), supported by an excellent Chorus. Other characters are represented, however, by simple though effective puppets, whose glass-eyed papier-mâché’d features are as expressive as Euripides’ translated words.

Arlene Martinez-Vasquez has directed this difficult tragedy with passion and commitment. The Chorus really do act and speak in unison, even when expressing swift action and intense emotion. An unusual and effective theatrical experience and one which commands respect and admiration. Avery’s Dionysus is duly androgynous, exploding with anger at being slighted by his/her mortal followers.

Lysistrata & The Bacchae might seem raw in their production, but there is no denying that they provide a good vehicle for emerging talent to explore its potential. Perhaps a little less exuberance and a little more stillness and focus in Lysistrata, and perhaps more clarity in the narrative drive of The Bacchae. It is refreshing, though, to see the ancient translated into the modern in such a simple but effective way.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby